Law and Public Policy

Tackling Free Expression and Connectivity in the Americas

October 1, 2012  • Amy Garmer

With the US presidential election just around the corner, we in the United States are presented with news and updates about our candidates, country, history and future from every medium. We turn on the TV, log into Twitter, read the news, or scan a blog; active political discussion is everywhere, and if we are so inclined we can track our candidate’s words and actions to a microscopic level. We wade through different perspectives and political spin, but the coverage is available for us to cast an informed ballot come Election Day.

But what if we lacked this active level of coverage and discussion? Having the freedom to cast a vote—one of the hallmarks of a free and democratic society—does not guarantee access to the facts needed to make an informed vote. So much of news coverage and analysis has moved online that having Internet access is an increasingly fundamental part of staying informed. Take that line of thinking a step further: what if certain kinds of coverage—say, coverage that was critical of a political party or shed light on events in areas controlled by drug cartels or other violent groups—was limited by censorship or intimidation? Even if you had access, could you make an informed decision with only a partial view of the facts?

These are some of the questions addressed in Freedom and Connectivity: Advancing the Freedom to Communicate in the Americas, the upcoming report of the Institute’s first Forum on the Freedom to Communicate. In February 2012, the Institute’s Communications and Society Program and Mexican telecommunications giant Grupo Salinas convened the first Forum on the Freedom to Communicate. The forum, held in Mexico City, brought together thought leaders from throughout the western hemisphere to examine contemporary issues surrounding freedoms of expression and connectivity in the digital age.

With a particular focus on Mexico, the report raises recurring questions about free expression and freedom of the press, made current by the rise of the Internet and digital communications. These questions have far-reaching political, social, and economic repercussions. As I say in the report, “the opportunities for citizens to engage in the social, educational, political and cultural like of the nation are moving increasingly online. Without the access and skills needed to connect to the Internet, these become lost opportunities that impede progress and further widen the gaps between the haves and the have-nots in society… In the digital information age, being connected is a prerequisite for having access to knowledge and power.”

Connectivity is a global concern. Events like the 2011 Arab Spring developments catapult the transformative power of free expression—and access to the Internet—into the forefront of the public and political eye, and questions about government censorship and restricted or unequal access to information are a chronic social and political concern. The discussions of the first Forum on the Freedom to Communicate and the contents of the forthcoming report provide an important framework for understanding issues of connectivity and freedom of expression in the western hemisphere. Drawing from the conclusions of the Forum, the report lays down clear, actionable steps for improving access and connectivity and for addressing direct and indirect limitations on free expression. The report will be released in English on October 1st in Washington, DC, and in Spanish on October 8th in Mexico City; check with the Communications and Society Program for more information.

Amy Garmer is the rapporteur and director of journalism projects at the Institute’s Communications and Society Program.